THE ALCHEMY OF BLACK FUTURES: BLACK COMICS, BLACK BEER CALENDARS & BLACK ICONOGRAPHY
As the information age gives way to the age of reckoning, where the dictates of nature will take precedence over the ‘needs’ of the market (and the pockets that control it), finding the spark of innovation in popular culture seems anachronistic. Yet, given how popular media is one of the primary vehicles for acculturation in the west, an event such as the release of Marvel’s ‘Black Panther’ Film provides an opportunity for paradigm shifts that extend beyond casting in Hollywood. ‘Black Panther’ gives us a cinematic take on a Black Utopia, and in doing so, allows us to cast reflection on mechanisms and hierarchies with which the Black diaspora is currently struggling. In light of this moment in which we are struggling to find answers to a gaggle of issues that threaten humanity, could there not be a better time to fantasize about a place that has it figured out?
“Every Man is the hero of his own story, the champion of his chosen myth.” ‘Black Panther’ #167
The First (Always Bet on Black)
Twenty years ago, New Line Cinema released a Marvel film entitled ‘Blade’, starring Wesley Snipes. Snipes and director John Singleton almost made a 'Black Panther', but could not reach a consensus on how to approach it. Thus Snipes went on to film 'Blade', based on a comic that debuted in 1973 about a vampire hunter who is half human, half vampire. This is actually the first comic book film with an African American lead, despite the current bombast about ‘Black Panther’ being the first. Black Panther does hold the distinction of being the first Black comic book hero, debuting in 1966. Snipes, whose extensive background as a martial artist made him the perfect choice for the role of Blade, committed to the assignment fully, becoming the ‘Daywalker’. ‘Blade’ was assigned an ‘R’ rating by the Motion Picture Association of America, so it would not garner the widespread box office success that subsequent ‘PG’ rated Marvel films have enjoyed, but it still made over 130 million dollars worldwide.
Snipe’s portrayal of Blade followed the narrative arc of many Hollywood action heroes- parents tragically taken away (in this case, Blade’s mother is attacked by a vampire while giving birth, which explains how Blade is a hybrid of both species). He is a loner in search of clues about his past and the hole left by the absence of love ones has been filled with hard skills- Blade is prodigiously good at killing beings that are notoriously hard to bring down, but because of the nature of who he is, he belongs to no community. Cool like Shaft and laser focused like Batman, Blade's character is a departure from these two heroes as he is not accountable to ‘The People’ or ‘Gotham City’. This mutes the resonance of this character beyond the film itself. We cheer when Blade wipes out a nightclub full of bloodthirsty wannabe Draculas, but at the end of the carnage, no one save for his sidekick will know how many lives were saved. The actions of Blade spurn metaphor because contextually, the reality in which he exists is detached from reality, specifically Black reality. He is a commoner without a community. A subsequent Black loner film, Jim Jarmusch’s ‘Ghost Dog’, creates a world in which the title character is alone but still attached to the community through various friendships. Blade does not have that narrative luxury, and is therefore a sort of ‘Invisible Man’ of heroes and films, overlooked as part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), and under appreciated for the conventions that it established with its sophisticated aesthetics and clean special effects. Snipes subsequently starred in two sequels to Blade, but ran afoul of the series’ screenwriter and later director, David Goyer, and his career has not been the same since. Yet, it is important to acknowledge this film for the ground that it laid for ‘Black Panther’ and comic book movies in general. ‘Blade’ truly represents the bridge from the big tent Batman and Superman films of the 80’s and 90’s to the current Marvel and DC cinematic universes. As Hollywood moved from Westerns as a staple myth-making framework towards space and comic book movies, Blade functioned as a latter day Poitier, proving that a Black man could win at the box office with a cape and a sword.
A Bit of Black History (In a can)
Black Iconography has generally been grounded in popular movements whose signs and slogans have flowed one into another- El Hajj Malik El-Shabazz (Malcolm X)’ s revolutionary speeches inspiring Willie Ricks (now known as Mukasa Dada), who while marching in Mississippi with Stokely Carmichael shouted ‘Black Power’, giving name and energy to a movement, which emboldened Huey Newton and Bobby Seale in their vision of the Black Panther Party which in turn begat John Carlos and Tommie Smith on the podium at Mexico City, fists raised high, which begat the Isley Brother’s ‘Fight the Power’ and James Brown’s “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)”, which begat Chuck D and Public Enemy, KRS-One and Rakim Allah, and the conscious hip-hop lyrics that have inspired the world. Ensconced in that timeline, we have Alex Haley, the famed biographer who helped Malcolm X pen his autobiography, published his epic historical novel ‘Roots: The Saga of American Family’, in 1976. The story of Kunta Kinte, which was released as television miniseries captivated audiences and inspired Americans, Black and White, to understand their genealogy. African-Americans in particular who had not been so inclined before now began to search in earnest for the ancestors. In 1975, T’Challa was presented in Marvel’s “Jungle Action” series, battling the likes of ‘White Gorilla’, ‘Venom’ and ‘Madame Slay’. Marvel clearly kept tabs on Black culture in service of marketing to our specific demographic as Black Panther, in alignment with the arc of Black power we see in this iconographic timeline, even leaves the ‘Jungle’ to head to ‘civilization’ to battle ‘The Clan’ in one issue. In finding the context of how the cinematic Black Panther aligns with this timeline, we can pinpoint to a year before ‘Roots’ was released, Anheuser-Busch, the multinational that produces and sells Budweiser, Busch and various other alcoholic beverages, produced its own cultural zeitgeist when it commissioned “The Great Kings and Queens of Africa" collection of paintings. This collection of 30 paintings by 23 artists, including Barbara Higgins-Bond, Jerry Pinkney, John Biggers, Lydia Thompson, was accompanied by a brief historical account of each figure that was compiled by noted historian Dr. John Henrik-Clarke.
The collection was then placed on calendars and posters and distributed throughout Black communities, with the original paintings touring the country via museums and high end art galleries. Currently, the paintings, which the beer company donated to the United Negro College Fund, are housed at six historically Black colleges: Morehouse College, Clark Atlanta University, Fisk University, Xavier University, Dillard University and Benedict College. According to Anheuser Busch, 43 million people visited the paintings while they were on tour, yet it is the propagation of the calendars with the paintings as artwork that may have reached an even larger audience. Barbershops, hair salons, corner stores, churches, restaurants and naturally, bars, any place where African-Americans congregated, the Budweiser calendar was present. It adorned the wall of a bedroom in my Grandparent’s home in Philadelphia, introducing me to the wealth and magnificence of Mansa Musa, the grace and savvy of Yaa Asantewaa and the fearsome military expertise of Shaka Zulu. There is an argument to be made that the Great Kings and Queens calendar helped popularize the idea of African Americans being the descendants of royalty. ‘There’s royalty in our DNA!’ was tweeted by emmy winning screenwriter Lena Waithe after attending the premiere of ‘Black Panther’ in Los Angeles, proof that this idea persists despite the fact that it may only be true for a miniscule portion of the descendants of the Africans brought to these shores.
We Want Wakanda! (When do we want it?) We want it now!
Quibbles over historical inaccuracies aside, the idea of a Black King ruling a technologically advanced, culturally traditional African nation unconquered by Europe resonates more so than ever, given the half a billion dollar first week’s worth of ticket sales and nationwide pop up of viewing parties for Black Panther organized by Black institutions. In Baltimore, an organization called the Intentional Community Building Cooperativeorganized a viewing and panel discussion that has sold out three screens at local movie cineplex.
“They say that staunch materialists rely on the sym(bol). A people’s army could.” Toni Cade Bambara, 'Madame Bai and the Taking of Stone Mountain'
‘Black Panther’ iconography resonates because it represents Black sovereignty, Black innovation and Black excellence. The imagery of Birnin Zana, the capital of Wakanda, an African city, something that many have not experienced, despite the beauty and majesty of Nairobi, Cape Town, Accra, Dar es Salaam, Addis Abbas, Lagos and countless others municipalities in Africa, is something that inspires thought about Black spaces and the threat posed by gentrification and displacement therein, particularly in American cities. So discussions around Black Sovereignty, the right to control the spaces in which will reside, work, play, shop and worship, draw from the imagery of the film.
Debates have raged regarding the hierarchy inherent in the royal structure of Wakanda’s government and its insistence on isolation versus Killmonger's desire to intervene on behalf of Africans throughout the diaspora, yet Black Panther is a film that places Women on equal footing with Men. A thorough investigation of the history of the Civil Rights Movement will shed light on the fact that legal thrust of the civil rights movement was the brainchild of Pauli Murray more so than Thurgood Marshall. Additionally, the moral center of the movement could be found in Fannie Lou Hamer more so than Dr. King and her other male counterparts, yet the popular iconography of the movement, burdened by patriarchy and white supremacy, has marginalized the role of women. The iconography of Rosa Parks promotes the idea that she merely sat on the bus; when in reality she was a full-time activist integral to the efforts of the local NAACP. This is where Art can function as a vehicle for paradigm shift, assigning value where there has previously been little or none. The Dora Milaje, the security force that protects T’Challa, shows Black women physically capable of handling themselves in combat, skillfully and forcefully overwhelming men. It is not that this does not have antecedents- Pam Grier of course, through her roles as Coffy and Foxy Brown, toting a rifle in movie posters, became an icon for Women’s movements. Shuri, Princess of Wakanda, is the smartest person in the world, the formative hand behind many of Wakanda’s wondrous innovations, and a formidable warrior as well. Nakia, the ‘War Dog’ spy played by Lupita Nyong’o, is shown rescuing women from bondage early in the film. The approach of the actresses in this film, including N’yongo, Danai Gurira, Angela Bassett, Letitia Wright and others- their taking advantage of the space to fully explore their respective roles in a manner to inspire as well as convey the narrative will yield positive results for educators, facilitating the empowerment of young girls and education of young boys in regards to gender equity. Cinematic equity, or a facsimile of such, with Women having stakes in the narrative, has power to change the narrative, in collaboration with, and not strictly in service to Men. This is a step forward that hopefully will resonate in other popular cultural outlets.
The question of how the film will be received by continental Africans was initially met with mixed responses, with some people concerned that Marvel, a subsidiary of an American entertainment corporation, being guilty of culturally appropriating various aspects of different African cultures to create Wakanda. This of course has never been a problem for African-Americans, who have had to remember and reconstruct our African identity from all over the diaspora, and being that Ryan Coogler, the director, is an African-American, along with Christopher Priest, whose storylines as a Marvel writer provide much of the inspiration for the film’s script, what we are seeing on screen is not so much appropriation as it is the manner in which Africans on western soil comprehend and approach their ancestral culture. Wakanda as a whole, is Africa through an African American lens, but in detail, it is the amalgamation of specific details from specific African groups. In Kenya, the film premiered in native daughter Lupita N’yongo’s hometown of Kisumu. In South Africa, home of John Kani, the actor who portrays Black Panther’s father T’chaka, there is pride that some of the language spoken in the script is isiXhosa, which is indigenous to the Xhosa people of South Africa.
How will Africans throughout the diaspora process with the idea that Wakanda, an isolated nation, prospered while the rest of Africa was carved up by the knife of colonialism? In many nations on the continent, colonialism has pitted groups against each other, creating divisions that persist today. There are many that identify with the film's antagonist, Killmonger, but the immediate reactions to the film and its storyline begs deeper investigation. Will the imagery of Wakanda successfully plant the seed written about by Cheikh Anta Diop, and pursued with varying degrees of success by the African Union? Can we conceive of a unified Congo, tactfully managing its coltan and various other mineral wealth and creating a new age of peace and development in central Africa?
Finally, this film is a gold mine for educators. Black Panther represents innovation, or what Dr. Reynaldo Anderson refers to as Astro-Blackness, the process where “...future-looking black scholars, artists, and activists are not only reclaiming their right to tell their own stories, but also to critique the European/American white digerati class of their narratives about others, past, present, and future — and challenging their presumed authority to be the sole interpreters of black lives and black futures”. With S.T.E.A.M. on screen as a way to inspire young people to study, to design to create, this amplifies the work of Afrofuturist Professor Dr. Walter Greason, who created a syllabus specifically around Wakanda. Afrofuturist scholar Dr. Nettrice Gaskins, a real life 'Shuri' who built and ran a STEAM lab in a Boston high school, has created a myriad of education material around what she terms, 'techno vernacular creativity'. For educators interested in removing the stigma of ignorance about Africa, there is much to glean in the details of the film. Of course innovation attributed to Africa has been marginalized despite the fact that African immigrants in the United States have the highest educational background,with more Africans attaining graduate degrees for their field than the general population. Black excellence persists in Africa despite the propaganda that says otherwise: the M-Pesa money systemin Kenya has revolutionized online payment systems, offering access to all sectors of society to a system without the barriers placed by traditional banking systems or western online payment systems such as paypal. The manner in which Africans repurpose materials, such as taking wire and making toy Galimotos, creating auto parts from repurposed metals, and fashioning sustainable solutionsis in line with the otherwordly innovations given life in Wakanda.
With all this going for the film, will this represent a last shift in Black iconography? After decades of pimps, hos, pushers and magical negros, a film marketed for popular culture is presenting a different view of Black culture, set as a futuristic fantasy. “There is no reason for us not to be able to use our skills to design a new future for Black people in America. We can make it cool to become conscious, constructive, 21st Century citizens, with new, positive, progressive standards for ourselves and our lives, here in America,” says Courtney Counts, a marketing executive for KTCAtl, a firm based in Atlanta, “Using the futuristic fiction and mythology depicted through Black Panther, Afrofuturism can make the leap from research and rhetoric, to dynamic and meaningful reality that improves and impacts, everyday life.”
Exactly how this iconography takes hold will rest in the hands of the people, the real life ‘Wakandans’ who view the film; in other words, for those of us who see ourselves in the story, and chose to own it as part of our mythology, we have the agency to in turn shape and apply it to our own Black futures.
Jason Harris is a writer and futurist whose first book, 'Redlines: Baltimore 2028' was featured in 'Unveiling Visions: The Alchemy of the Black Imagination' exhibit at the Schomburg Center for research in Black Culture. He is a Kimbilio literary fellow currently engaged in Afrofuturist artistic and educational projects in Baltimore City where he resides. Follow him on twitter @jharrisfuture and visit his website, www.newfuturism.com.